Imagine you’re a poor student at Dublin’s Trinity College in the 1840s. You’re newly married and living with your wife in a squalid tenement, cut off from friends and family. The future looks bleak, so when the authorities at Dublin Castle suggest that you become an informer, it seems to be the perfect solution. You will be rewarded well for any information you can give them leading to a conviction…and if you could just manage to witness a few murders, your money troubles could be over!
This is the situation in which our narrator finds himself in this wonderfully moody and sinister historical crime novel, The Convictions of John Delahunt. As the novel opens, John is sitting in a prison cell awaiting his death. We’re not sure exactly what he has done, except that it appears to involve the murder of a child. As he begins to write his final testimony, we are taken back to the origins of John’s dangerous career as an informer and discover how and why this young student of natural philosophy has been sentenced to hang.
Andrew Hughes is also the author of a non-fiction book about the residents of Dublin’s Fitzwilliam Square, Lives Less Ordinary, and so he has been able to draw on his knowledge of the city’s history to make John Delahunt’s world feel authentic and real. Because of the circles in which Delahunt moves, the focus is on the darker side of society – workhouses, grave robbing, illegal abortions, rat-killing and laudanum addiction are all explored. Dublin’s streets and alleys, taverns and parks, courtrooms and drawing rooms are all vividly described and although the language the author uses is modern enough to be accessible and easy to read, it never feels out of place with the Victorian setting.
John Delahunt himself is an intriguing narrator, though not always entirely reliable. He is certainly not easy to like – one of his first actions in the book is to tell a lie to the police that leads to a friend being found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit – yet I could still feel for him when things didn’t go according to plan and when he saw his life beginning to disintegrate around him.
A large part of John’s story revolves around his relationship with his wife, Helen, who is another interesting character – although we never get to see things from her perspective as John is narrating in the first person. At first Helen seems to be on the same wavelength as her husband, attending a hanging with him and even helping him to compile a list of friends, family and neighbours to inform on. Later in the book she experiences a personal tragedy and after this she seems to undergo a change, though because we only see her through John’s eyes, her true thoughts and emotions are not very clear.
I loved this dark and atmospheric book and was completely gripped by John Delahunt’s fascinating story (based on true events, by the way). A word of advice to potential readers – don’t start reading it in your lunch break at work or in bed when you need to be up early the next day, as you may find that you really don’t want to put it down!
Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley